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Netflix's "Spiderhead" is a huge departure from Jurnee Smollett's previous projects ("Birds of Prey," "Lovecraft Country," and "True Blood"). The first thing the actor thought of when she read the film's script a few years ago is the Milgram experiment - the controversial 1960s psychological study on human authority and obedience. Its connection to the movie, inspired by The New Yorker's 2010 "Escape From Spiderhead" short story, was too strong for Smollett to ignore.
"This idea of disobedience versus obedience really intrigued me."
"I read about that experiment when I was in high school . . . and it stuck with me - this idea that you could manipulate another human being so much that they then inflict pain or suffering on someone else willingly," she tells POPSUGAR. "This idea of disobedience versus obedience really intrigued me, so when I read the script, I was like, 'Whoa, this is entertaining and thought-provoking.'"
"Spiderhead," a futuristic thriller set in a state-of-the-art penitentiary, follows visionary Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) - a scientist who administers doses of mind-altering drugs to inmates in exchange for commuted sentences - and his inhumane psych experiments. Steve's subjects, Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Smollett), form a connection in the prison they're serving out sentences in as they fall victim to his controversial tests of free will that he hopes will go on to change the pharmaceutical world. The genre-bending film is a combination of dark comedy, social commentary, and psychological thriller that brought up a lot of "uncomfortable questions" for Smollett, but she learned to step out of her comfort zone to push through filming.
"Spiderhead" was shot at the height of the pandemic, a time when Smollett found herself in "a place of extreme isolation." "There was a lot of deep, emotional pain that I was trying to metabolize while also feeling so disconnected from the world," she explains. In the film, Smollett's Lizzy struggles to deal with the death of her young daughter as she's found guilty of her murder and sent to prison.
Despite their extreme differences, the actor admits that she still finds elements of herself in her character. "That level of isolation does something to you as we all know," she continues, "and so I could connect to that, but then I could also connect to this idea of vulnerability versus shame. . . . We all have things in our past that we beat ourselves up about and have that sensor inside that says, 'You're this, or you're that, or you're not enough,' you know? Those are some of the things that I was exploring with [Lizzy]."
"I feel like this movie is [the kind] that after you see it, you got to talk about it."
Working with Teller and Hemsworth - "lovely collaborators," as Smollett calls them - was a rewarding experience for the actor. "Personally, I was hungry to get back on set and be able to just create, and it felt so safe to do that with them. It was a very generous, playful environment," she notes.
The warm setting and the actors' characters' exploration of human willingness and manipulation prompted Smollett to do some reflecting of her own. "It definitely made me explore it deeper," she says. "Where do you draw the line in society, and who gets to draw the line? We have so much modern technology, and the future is only going to progress more, but as we become more technologically advanced, we become more disconnected from our true inner nature, too."
"Spiderhead" embarks on a journey through shame, redemption, and reconciliation that's so deeply rooted in reality. Even after filming the movie, Smollett still finds herself processing its layered storyline and predicts viewers will do the same. "It definitely challenged me to kind of inspect [the shame] within myself a lot and go to those really uncomfortable places," she shares. "I feel like this movie is [the kind] that after you see it, you got to talk about it. It doesn't just go away quietly in the dust."
"Spiderhead" is available to stream on Netflix now.